Ohrid SOS citizens’ initiative

MACEDONIA/2017

Since mobilizing in response to the multiple urbanization plans that present an existential threat to the ecosystems of the UNESCO Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia, which are globally unique, the Ohrid SOS citizens' initiative has suffered various types of persecution, disruption, and obstruction of its operations on both individual and organizational levels. These have ranged from attempts to criminalize activists to campaign for fake news aimed at discrediting the initiative and its members.

The party does not forget!

January 2015: The Ohrid SOS Citizens' Initiative is a group of scientists, activists, NGO leaders, and concerned citizens acting in response to plans to drain the Studenchishte Marsh, the last remains of vital Lake Ohrid that function as a natural filter to maintain the extremely specific water conditions that the ancient lake's ecosystems have evolved. The movement soon expanded to oppose multiple proposed projects for the region, including the EBRD-financed express road, the ski resort, and multiple shoreline development zones in the Galichica National Park.

Following an assembly meeting in March 2015 at the Municipality of Ohrid was the drainage of the Studenchishte Marsh, at which the Ohrid SOS ridicule was made, as well as the shut down of its contribution. One activist was advised not to interfere in the wetland issue by a member of the Republic of Macedonia's ruling party. The same activist was also informed that the ruling party "does not forget," which was interpreted as a warning of the future consequences of his involvement with the Ohrid SOS initiative continue.

The vanishing of the comments on the SEA

February 2016: Ohrid SOS submitted comments in both English and Macedonian as part of the public consultation process for the second draft of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Amendments to the 2011-2020 Management Plan for Galichica National Park United Kingdom's Citrus Partners LLP. The SEA's plans are for the aforementioned ski resort, express road, and tourism development zones. When the document responding to comments is released by Citrus in June 2016, all traces of Ohrid SOS's submission will have disappeared and been replaced with another document. Ohrid SOS reacts by contacting the Galichica National Park, Citrus Partners LLP, and the EBRD, the proposed financer for the road and SEA facilitator. Neither Citrus Partners nor Galichica National Park responds to requests for explanation. The EBRD writes back, emphasizing its control over the SEA procedure, redirecting the Ohrid SOS back to the authorities in Macedonia, offering a meeting at the bank headquarters, which takes place in February 2017. Comments has never been explained by any of the relevant parties.

Criminal charges and threats against Ohrid SOS activists

February 2016: Ilina Arsova, an Ohrid SOS activist, artist, and sportswoman, is invited to question Ohrid Police in response to complaints by the Ohrid Municipality, key drivers of urbanization in the environmentally sensitive Lake Ohrid shoreline and drainage of the Studenchishte marsh wetland. The center of the activist's peaceful activities is around the construction of an artificial beach complex in the village of Lagadin and the associated urbanization. Criminal charges-- later dropped-- are brought against Arsova. It is believed to be in the name of the people of Lagadin that access to the information about the village's motivating factor in the pressurized and criminalized games is granted.

June 2016: Threats are coming from Ohrid SOS members after the launch of the public criticism of a 4x4 event that saw the thrill-seeking off-road vehicles cut through the mountain habitats of Galichica National Park. A photo of one activist is shared online, while the aforementioned Ilina Arsova has been told by the supporters of the 4x4 event that they know of the remote locations where she spends her free time. The convoy had been strongly supported by the Municipality of Ohrid and the Ohrid Mayor.

July 2016: The public service workers were not happy about a photo of the Ohrid SOS activist with the trees. They verbally abused and attempted to assault him, while threatening to break his mobile phone. A similar incident in the same month shows the same activist as a public service worker again and with greater tree-felling records.

A fake news campaign

July 2016 & after: A fragment of fake news and personal attacks against Ohrid SOS activists is disseminated by local media outlet, Ohrid1, owned by Megastar Productions backing environmentally reckless developments in the Ohrid region. The fake news largely takes the form of fabricated press releases sourced to a deceptive email account and signed by Fidan Zulfi's unknown character, whose name is now found in the official records of the Republic of Macedonia. Zulfi falsely claims to be the leader of Ohrid SOS and to speak on its behalf. He intimates financial scandal and presents the SOS initiative as extremist, divided, and out of touch with reality in a clear attempt to damage it with the public, destabilize and defocus its operations, and distract attention away from the important issues it publicizes. The personal attacks include the defamation of SOS activist Ilina Arsova, whose private property is mentioned as a subject of threat. One particularly ominous dissemination also redirects the public to an email account that has been established by an Ohrid SOS impersonate, while intimating that activists may have a face for the initiative's identity.

Forms of silent and indirect persecution

Reprisals against citizens who disagree with Macedonia's authorities, in the past couple of years, include abuse of employment procedures; such measures are sometimes applied to the family members, instead of the target citizen directly. This discourages active public support for Ohrid SOS, who is willing to speak out against government plans. Meanwhile, the media has been subjected to control, and the right to freely accessed information has been violated, with some requests for necessary documentation being completely ignored.

These forms of silent and indirect persecution have undermined environmental initiatives in the Republic of Macedonia, restricting their ability to research, communicate, interact, attract members, and gain support. They may not be newsworthy or readily provable as a physical attack or explicit verbal threat, but they are equally real and dangerous to the future of the environmental movement.


Further reading:

https://ohridsos.org/press-releases/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311675876_BALKAN_GALAPAGOS_AT_RISK_-_BBC_Wildlife_Magazine_interview

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2985975/macedonia_ebrds_planned_destruction_of_lake_ohrid_biosphere_reserve.html

http://fokus.mk/lake-ohrid-a-paradise-in-peril/

https://www.biogeosciences.net/7/3999/2010/bg-7-3999-2010.pdf

https://www.yahoo.com/news/macedonians-send-sos-europes-oldest-lake-040024387.html

https://www.wetland-ecology.nl/sites/cwe.nioo.knaw.nl/files/Apostolova%20et%20al.%202016.pdf

http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/158740/